All posts by sobsey

Albania 4: to Ohrid

img_1710.jpgIn the afterword to Lolita, Nabokov enumerates some very minor details of the novel, a few of them just a sentence or even a mere word, that most readers will have probably not even noticed. He calls these “the nerves of the novel. These are the secret points, the subliminal coordinates by means of which the book is plotted.”

Likewise, the subliminal coordinates of my Albanian ambit aren’t major figures like Lee or arresting moments like my encounter with the epileptic on the hilltop above Kruja. Those episodes are the flesh, muscle and blood of my experiences here. The bones and joints, what it all hangs on and what holds it together, is the actual travel.

Continue reading Albania 4: to Ohrid

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Albania 3: Theth to Valbona

It poured down rain overnight, timpani on the metal roof right above us. When I woke up, I thought about staying in bed all the next day in that chilly guesthouse, reading, but this plan suddenly seemed intolerable. I thought about walking back down into Theth and finding another guesthouse for the night, but that would only accomplish improving the conditions of waiting around. I had to keep moving. I checked the weather again. My phone couldn’t locate Theth, so I asked my hostess to check hers. Cloudy, slight chance of rain. Not a nice day for hiking.

Does every day have to be a nice day, whether you’re hiking or not? Isn’t there some corollary of this-is-just-one-place-and-I’m-just-one-person that posits that weather is just weather and any day for walking is as good as any other, as long as it isn’t pouring down rain? In any case, I had a rain jacket, and Lee had already set an example for me: he had decided to visit a waterfall partway up the Theth-Valbona trail and then come back and spend another night at our guesthouse. While I was deliberating on what to do, he did what should be done: he didn’t think about it; he just got up and left, shortly after our hostess cooked us frittatas she made with nettles harvested from her property—delicious.

There was only one thing to do. I shoved all my stuff back into my bag and announced that I was setting off for Valbona. The hostess’s mother, let’s call her bubbie, objected in Albanian. Snow! she warned. All that rain in the valley the night before wasn’t rain 1000 meters up, where the trail went. But her daughter wasn’t quite so worried. Possibly a light dusting, she said; perhaps mere rain. I asked how much I owed her for the room and the food. It was somewhere under twenty dollars, but I had forgotten exactly how much, and without WiFi—did I mention her guesthouse had no WiFi?—I couldn’t check the booking site; plus she’d fed me twice and given me a beer, so I owed her for board as well as room.

She was sheepish, and wouldn’t name a price. Her face betrayed awareness that her place was lacking, her son a problem. As if deleting amenities by the hour, after breakfast the power went out. Enough. I gave her a 2,000 lekë note (about $20), fairly close to the actual listed price of the place on booking-dot-com, plus a little extra for the food (she looked a bit surprised that I gave her anything at all); and I marched off.

Continue reading Albania 3: Theth to Valbona

Albania 2: Shkodër to Theth

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Marubi’s camera.

Shkodër, or Shkodra—the rendering of Albanian nouns can evidently change with usage in ways I haven’t figured out. In fact, I find the language hard to get a grip on, and so far I’m still pretty proud of just being able to count to ten. Albanian is a language isolate, like Basque and Korean. Its grammar, rules, and even pronunciation are resistant to quick study. There seems to be a different way to say a pronoun in every kind of sentence in which it’s used.

Shkodër is a pleasant city in northwestern Albania and has clearly been on a development kick over the last few years. There’s a handsome central piazza and newly pedestrianized main avenue, lots of young restaurants, and a new museum (about which more soon). I spent two nights there, and on the last of them I chatted briefly with a couple of Americans, one of whom lives in Shkodër and the other, his friend, visiting him for the first time in four years. He told me that Shkodër’s growth and general act-cleaning-up was very apparent since his last visit. “People have more disposable income,” he said.

Continue reading Albania 2: Shkodër to Theth

From Albania: Keep Moving, Never Change

Hello from Albania, by which I mean Macedonia: this morning I checked out of my hotel in Peshkopi, Albania, where I stayed overnight, and took a taxi over the border and then two buses to Ohrid—boom boom, one after another, in lucky timing sequence. Ohrid sits on a large, deep lake of the same name. Somewhere I read that it was “the jewel of Macedonia,” and it’s just across the Albanian border. So here I am. My big agenda when I got here was to find a place to do laundry. It turns out the affordable places are closed for the weekend; the hotels will gladly charge daftly inflated prices, i.e. as much to wash three shirts as I spend on food in a day of travel here. I think I’ve got enough clean clothes to last me a couple more days, by which time I’ll be back in Albania. In the meantime, let me write about it a little.

Continue reading From Albania: Keep Moving, Never Change

An Open Letter to Scott Harmon

(Reprinted from the ABCDurham downtown listserv, in response to developer Scott Harmon’s “Open Letter to My Fellow White Progressives” posted to the listserv on March 13, 2019.)

Dear Scott Harmon,

We don’t know each other, but we have at least four things in common: we both work in downtown Durham; we both care very much about the future, character, and quality of our city’s rapid growth; we both consider ourselves white progressives; and we’re both proponents of residential density in city centers. I admire Center Studio Architecture’s redevelopment of the 500 block of North Mangum Street, a previously characterless thoroughfare stretch that has not only gained housing but also aesthetic presence from your firm’s three condominium buildings: Mangum 506, Mangum Flats, and now Eleven Durham, the latter currently in its early phase of construction.

Your “Open Letter to My Fellow White Progressives” (which I’ve copied below for those who haven’t read it or need refreshment) got and kept my attention ever since you posted it to the listserv a few weeks ago. No doubt that’s partly because I hear your voice, so to speak, every day. Before I continue, let me make an important disclosure, as you did in acknowledging (via Dawn Bland’s preface to your letter) that you are “a developer and architect in downtown Durham [who] has a vested interest.” I have a vested interest, too. In addition to working in downtown Durham, I also own and live in a house here too. It’s nearly adjacent to the Eleven Durham site; my bedroom is just a few dozen feet away from it. (There’s a fifth thing we have in common, or very nearly so: a property line.) The persistent beep-beep-beep of backhoes going backward, beginning daily at about 7:30 a.m., is a de facto alarm clock that gets me prematurely out of bed: I work nights and no longer get sufficient sleep on weekdays. It also, in a chorus with the downtown-wide beeping of heavy machinery and cherry pickers, heard like a soundtrack motif throughout the day, keeps me awake and alert to (not to say alarmed by) the full-throttle development I witness at street-level, with close observation, nearly every day: Eleven Durham’s daylong construction clangor and thunder often render my house uninhabitable for hours at a time, so I have to get out, and that takes me around and about downtown on foot.

Perhaps there is some world where people whose lives are upheaved and degraded by a construction project which deprives them of sleep and the basic comforts and tranquility of home are compensated in some way or another, or at least cautioned in advance of the project in case they should like to seek counteractive or protective measures. But I know full well that that world is not this one. The business of America is business, as the saying goes: hence it’s up to business to determine the activity, direction, and character of the country, or at least any given business’s part of the country. “Market forces,” as the euphemism puts it, answer our essential civic questions, either intentionally or incidentally: What is downtown Durham going to look like? What kind of place will it be to live and walk and work and experience, from any vantage point: that of the homeowner-resident or the tourist; the developer or the bartender; ground level or the parking deck roof; white or black?

You have, in other words, a heavy responsibility, and I genuinely appreciate the seriousness with which your open letter takes it. I suspect we agree that any city ought to strive to look, feel, and do good from whatever position and identity each of us occupies. In addressing you here, I’m trying to balance my public enthusiasm for seeing residential density increase with the personal inconvenience and stress I experience at Eleven Durham’s hands; and I’m also trying to reconcile my desire to see Durham keep thriving with my concerns about the nature of that thriving.

Continue reading An Open Letter to Scott Harmon

The Tobacconist, Vol. 7

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. On the face of it, it seemed a little surprising that North Carolina, a ten-loss team, not only got a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament but the highest No. 2 seed, making the 10th-ranked (in the polls) Tar Heels the fifth-best team in the country by the selection committee’s lights. They outranked 26-7 and ninth-ranked Duke — whom they beat two out of three times, so no huge surprise — as well as Cincinnati (30-4, No. 6 in the polls), Purdue (28-6, No. 11), and Michigan State (29-4, No. 5). The Spartans, who drubbed UNC in the PK80 invitational tournament in November, were the Big 10 regular season champions, yet were awarded just a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.

The explanation for this apparent confusion is derived from so-called “Quadrant 1” performance. The NCAA has more precisely codified wins this season. The Quadrant system rewards teams for beating top-30 opponents (by RPI) at home, top-50 teams at neutral sites, and top-75 teams on the road. (One can quibble with the RPI itself, but there has to be a baseline somewhere, and it’s not as if the RPI rankings are an abomination.) Those are all considered Quadrant 1 wins, and North Carolina not only has the most in the NCAA (14), they’ve played the most Quadrant 1 teams (22), by far, in the country. That’s why they got a cookie from the committee, whose priorities are quite clear: as often as you can, play good teams, especially away from home. A 14-8 overall Quadrant 1 record is nowhere near as dominant as Virginia’s 12-1, but it’s far better than Michigan State’s 3-4. (Duke finished 6-5 in Quadrant 1 games.) Carolina was rewarded for sheer quantity, which actually harmonizes with the program’s overall strengths: their current three-year run of high-level play has been fueled largely by how many extra shots their offensive rebounds provide them, and by players whose quality owes largely to staying around for three or four years.

The Tar Heels were also rewarded for something they had no control over: the ACC regular season schedule, which required them to run a very tough gauntlet, much tougher than Duke’s. While the Blue Devils were beating up on both Pittsburgh and Wake Forest twice each, UNC had to play Clemson twice, N.C. State twice, and Notre Dame twice. Their lone games against Florida State, Louisville, Syracuse, and Virginia were all on the road. Carolina got extra Quadrant 1 points just by showing up.

An outcome of this math can be measured in distance: UNC only has to drive down to Charlotte for the tournament’s first weekend. They’ll take on No. 15 seed and Atlantic Sun champion Lipscomb in the first round. It’s the Bisons’ first ever tournament appearance. Why they’re called the Bisons is beyond me, since Lipscomb is in Nashville. (But then, why are any sports teams in America called the Tigers?) If UNC manages to run the Bisons off the cliff — and hey, the Ken Pomeroy metrics rank Lipscomb eight spots lower than Wofford, so the Tar Heels definitely have a chance — they’ll meet the winner of Texas A&M and Providence in the second round. For what it’s worth, the Tar Heels beat Providence in the second round of the tournament two years ago, in Raleigh, on the way to the NCAA championship game against Villanova.

Carolina fans may wince at the memory of that heartbreaker, but Carolina has a decent shot to advance to what would be their third straight Final Four. That would put them in rarefied air. It’s only happened eleven times — once by Carolina themselves, back in the late sixties, when UCLA was setting a never-to-broken record by appearing in ten straight Final Fours. (Duke made it to five in a row from 1988-1992.) To achieve that threepeat, Carolina has the easiest path of any No. 2 seed, as their overall rating affords them. The No. 1 seed in the West Region, where UNC was placed, is Xavier. Along the way, UNC would probably have to get past either Michigan, whom they beat earlier this season in Chapel Hill, or Houston, a slightly underappreciated and very good team that can both score and defend. (To me, that’s the scary matchup.) Still, all the way up to the regional final, it’s hard not to look at the bracket and conclude that UNC is probably the team you’d take. Then it’s a one-game toss-up.

Duke, meanwhile, is off to Pittsburgh as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region. They’ll play Iona in the first round, followed by the winner of Rhode Island and Oklahoma. That means there’s already a little drama awaiting the Blue Devils in the second round. Tenth-seeded Oklahoma has not played well lately, but they boast Trae Young, the wispy star guard, a lottery pick this coming June and the sort of player who can score forty points on any given night. If he has a career game — and players like Young tend to love bright-spotlight moments like an underdog March matchup against a team like Duke — the Blue Devils could find themselves in the soup. (You might recall what happened when they drew Derrick Williams and Arizona in the 2011 tournament.) Seventh-seeded Rhode Island — which wears Carolina Blue and is called the Rams — is coached by Danny Hurley, Duke legend Bobby’s brother. (An aside: Rhode Island’s loss in the Atlantic Ten tournament final had a domino effect of jeopardizing the bubbly at-large bid hopes of Arizona State, which is coached by… Bobby Hurley. Arizona State squeaked in as a First Four probation pick, and you should check out Danny’s reaction when his fear that he’d cost his brother a bid went unrealized.)

Arizona State’s play-in game — against Syracuse, an ACC bid I wish had been swapped out for Notre Dame, a much more interesting and fun team to watch, with perhaps the ACC’s most likable coach — happens to be in Duke’s half of the Midwest Region bracket, making it possible for the Blue Devils to play both Hurleys’ teams in consecutive tournament games. (Cue committee-has-a-sense-humor chorus.) That won’t happen, though, because Arizona State would have to beat not only Syracuse and its sticky 2-3 zone but then none other than the fearsome Michigan State Spartans — who, are, once again, the trendy pick to win the tournament, as it seems they are every year. The Spartans are the No. 3 seed in Duke’s region. Duke beat Michigan State earlier this year behind a career  night from hot-and-cold Grayson Allen, but that was nearly four months ago. A third-round rematch would be a potential powerhouse showdown in the round of 16, and it could be followed by Duke facing No. 1 seed Kansas in the regional final in Omaha. If the Blue Devils are going to the Final Four, they’ll have to earn it pretty much from the start. Even Iona can’t be discounted, if for no other reason than that the ghosts of Lehigh and Mercer are still perhaps hanging over Duke.

So with all that out of the way, where are our two teams now as they enter the tournament?

Duke plays at the highest level country, except when they don’t. That’s a way of saying that they’re a freshman-dominated team. They looked disengaged and outplayed in losing to Virginia Tech two weeks ago; looked terrifyingly great in storming back to beat UNC in their next game; had no trouble running away from Notre Dame in their first ACC Tournament game; and then let UNC slap them silly until a final, desperate rally in the last five minutes of the game almost produced another sensational comeback. You just never quite know with this team. At the level of efficiency and metrics there’s lots to love. Duke has the country’s third-best offense and seventh-best defense, per Pomeroy. They’ve got the best player in the country, in my opinion, and when Marvin Bagley III gets going he’s close to unstoppable. But they have long stretches of losing focus, and the solution Mike Krzyzewski has come with at guard doesn’t entirely work. Grayson Allen runs the show, but he isn’t a natural point guard, and no real priority seems to be given to feeding the ball to the post, where Bagley and Wendell Carter, Jr. ought to be primary options. It amazes me how many possessions go by without Bagley or Carter getting the ball anywhere near decent scoring position, if at all (although you could argue that anywhere Bagley gets the ball puts him in decent position to score). Krzyzewski’s guard-focused style is long practiced, of course, and he loves Allen; but it does seem like he runs the risk of living and dying by his lone senior.

As for Carolina, they’ve got the friendliest path to the Final Four of any No. 2 seed. They’ve been playing well, even in their loss to Virginia in the ACC Tournament final. Unlike Duke, Carolina is pretty predictable out there on the floor. They tend to win or lose based on varying degrees of how well they do the things they always do (or try to do). In their win over Duke in the semifinals, they took seventeen more shots than the Blue Devils did by dint of offensive rebounds and points off turnovers. Against Virginia, those advantages weren’t there. They’re playing about at their peak — also unlike Duke, a team that could get a lot better in these last six games — but the question is whether UNC’s peak is high enough to take them back to the national championship. Probably not, but that a team that lost to Wofford at home this season and started the conference schedule 5-5 has set itself up for a decent shot at the Final Four may be reward enough.

The Tobacconist is unsure whether he will be back this season. He has enjoyed it tremendously — probably more than he’s enjoyed any season in recent memory, and that includes numerous Final Fours and championships by our two local teams in this decade. (This is just a reminder that either Duke or Carolina has been in the Final Four in six of the last ten seasons; had Kendall Marshall not fractured his wrist against Creighton in 2012, it’d almost surely be seven.) The sheer coltish excitement of watching Duke’s freshmen learn on the job — not to mention Bagley’s breathtaking ability, Carter’s great old-man post defense, Gary Trent, Jr.s’ sweet shooting — and the subtler simmer of UNC’s development have yielded all kinds of rewards, including three games against one another this season, all of them entertaining. No one reads these posts, I barely edit them. They’re just to express a personal joy in watching the local college basketball, which is the greatest college basketball in the world.

But for me March Madness is closer to March Sadness. The season is coming to an end, and even though there’s baseball, our chance to watch college basketball players is by definition limited. Grayson Allen, Joel Berry, and Theo Pinson have built tremendous legacies around here, and it’s hard to say goodbye to these kids who have played so hard for so many minutes, games and seasons — and who have been growing up, in their own different and tangled ways, before our eyes. And then there are the inevitable early exits by players like Bagley, leaving us to wonder what could have been had they stayed longer. There’s always a point in the season, usually right around the first Duke-UNC game in early February, when you feel as though it’s all just getting fully going, and then you realize how soon it’s all going to end. It has been a blue winter in more ways than one, and the Tobacconist feels fully saturated in the color, be it sky or midnight or some amalgamated shade. The NCAA Tournament is an awful lot of fun, but it’s also driven by unpredictability, unfairness, and bitterly quick ends to long work. It’s as hard to watch as it is fun. And it may be that between those opposed feelings, the best thing to do is to take it in quietly and let it speak for itself.

I leave you with a beautiful tune by the Pernice Brothers that I always associate with the end of winter and coming of spring. It’s called “The Weakest Shade of Blue.”

The Tobacconist, Vol. 6

“Fandom is a great beacon of our cultural idiocy,” a pro ballplayer once told me. “Wanting your team to win and not understanding why they can’t is so dumb.” This has always stuck with me, not because I quite agree with it — why would there be sports at all if no one rooted for anyone? — but because the way I feel after my team loses is generally not so much disappointed or upset as something close to dumb, and dumb in a particular way; that is, for having any kind of emotional reaction to athletes winning or losing games.

The psychology of this reaction is complex and has surely inspired many studies, journal articles, cultural studies, and so on. I don’t feel the need to analyze it much more than we already do. And I need to qualify this by saying that I covered both Duke and UNC basketball as a journalist, which means that I have: A) a certain amount of objectivity (although you would be amazed by how many sports journalists are actually just diehard fans of some team or other); B) an unusual diffusion of what rooting interests I do possess. Not many people can get behind both of these rival programs.

For a longish time, I adopted the ballplayer’s no-rooting, fandom-is-idiocy ideology, because I have Buddhist tendencies and will look for ways to practice them. But over time, I’ve come to appreciate that fandom, expressed in certain ways, bespeaks a certain kind of generosity and ardor that I don’t really want to relinquish, and probably can’t even if I were to try. I grew up around here. I remember Rich Yonakor and Gene Banks and Ranzino Smith and Alaa Abdelnaby and where I was when [insert any number of great Duke and/or UNC moments here]. Our fandom dwells in our childhoods. To abandon it is to be less than our full selves.  Continue reading The Tobacconist, Vol. 6

The Tobacconist, Vol. 5

I was at last night’s game in Cameron Indoor Stadium, in which Duke thrashed Louisville, 82-56. I covered the Blue Devils in 2011-2012 and so had seen numerous games in the justly legendary building, but there’s something very different about sitting in the stands. It’s not just that I was literally on the other side of the court from press row, nor that I was with some friends who had kindly invited me. The whole feel of the experience is different; the eyes see differently; one’s investment is different. The specifics of the action on the court yield to a broader absorption: swaths of play; looks on players’ faces and attitudes of body language; and those almost mysterious rises and falls in collective intensity level that are like weather systems passing in quick time lapse.

Because I’d always gone straight into the press room when I was covering Duke, I had never thought to take the time to visit Cameron Indoor Stadium’s museum/shrine to Duke basketball and varsity sports generally. We arrived rather early and had some time on our hands, so we wandered through it. The one exhibit I’ll never forget was what I took to be an artist’s heroic rendering of  basketball shoe at an approximately 2:1 scale, about the size of a small dachshund. As I moved closer and read the placard, I discovered that it was an Actual. Shoe. Worn. By. Jahlil. Okafor. You know what they say about men with big shoesContinue reading The Tobacconist, Vol. 5

The Tobacconist, Vol. 4.

For a few years I worked for a redoubtable and stereotypical prima donna chef who was known to 86 menu items in order to force customers to order other ones; refuse to cook certain cuts of meat past a certain temperature regardless of whether it was ordered that way; deny his stock of nicer wine glasses to guests who didn’t spend an arbitrary minimum amount on their bottle; and so on. He drove his cooks like oxen and could be mercilessly hard on his floor staff as well, and harder still in affect because he didn’t throw Ramsay-ish tantrums. Instead he gave cold, calm, premeditated, dead-eyed, withering disapproval. It hurt up under the sternum to receive this treatment, but there was treatment of his that hurt even worse: being ignored. Once that happened to them a few times, waiters knew their time at the restaurant was short. They’d never be fired, of course: that could result in filing for unemployment, which the chef would never risk paying. He’d simply make them feel so exiled — abetted, somewhat unintentionally, even apologetically, by the rest of the front-of-house staff, who were too terrified to risk affiliation with a pariah — that they’d quit sooner or later, often as a means of putting and end to an unhappy spell working the restaurant’s Siberia section, which of course included Table 13.

After UNC beat Duke in Chapel Hill last Thursday night, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski was asked about shooting guard Grayson Allen’s low scoring output. Krzyzewski began his answer like so: “Trevon…” Then he tailed off and rephrased his response: “Grayson had to handle the ball a lot.” He didn’t mention Trevon Duval again.

Continue reading The Tobacconist, Vol. 4.

The Tobacconist, Vol. 3

Is it going to go like this for the Tar Heels? Lose multiple games in a row and then come home and maul a lower-division conference opponent 96-66 (or 96-65) behind a big night by Luke Maye? At what point is the inflection point, if any, where progress begins? Everyone knows UNC is too talented and has too much experience to be as bad as they frequently are, so why, frequently, are they? This is really the question of the season in Chapel Hill, unless the team somehow gets so far past the inflection point that the Final Four becomes a legitimate subject. Continue reading The Tobacconist, Vol. 3